Support is Not for Sale
Following on from the elegy provided for the website he had run for the past 12 years, the incomparable Boy from Brazil, Michael Wood makes a quick return to TTU today. Here are his thoughts on a recent offer from Gillingham Football Club to their fans, arguing that the quality of generosity should not be strain’d.
Gillingham supporters are not happy. Following a poor performance, there has been an offer by Gillingham FC to pay fans back who made a trip to Accrington for a 4-3 defeat. The offer comes in the form of £20 vouchers for club travel but – as a lot of supporters do not use official travel – there is a discussion about how to make this move more inclusive to supporters who prefer to get to games under their own steam, and how to make it cover all expenses.
Chairman of Gillingham’s Paul Scally talks in terms of a gesture of goodwill rather than the full refund that the supporters club are talking about. One awaits developments but one doubts either side will be happy with the outcome when it comes.
There has been a trend for offering supporters money back after poor performances or bad defeats which has been welcomed into football over recent years. From the likes of Gillingham at Accrington up to Arsenal’s thrashing at Manchester United which resulted in the offer of a free ticket to a home game – there are empty seats at The Library – the response to a very bad game seems to be that football clubs will give the fans a financial break.
All of which probably sounds good when written in a press release and seldom is criticised, although perhaps should be. While both the offers made and offers accepted are done with a good heart the transaction of money for dissatisfaction further damages one of the touchstones of our national game.
Supporters, fans, whatever name we wish to call them, are probably the only permanent thing at a football club. Pick a club at random – Derby County are picked by putting a pin in paper – and how far do you have to go back to find the year when none of the boardroom, management team and playing staff were there? I’ve no answer but I suspect that it is less than ten years. Pride Park based Derby have moved grounds in the last few decades from the historic Baseball Ground. Any fan who can say they stood on those terraces would struggle to find anything about The Rams which they do not predate.
Supporters – the type who travel from Kent to East Lancashire – have been paying to go to watch their team play well, and watch them play badly, for longer than the majority of the those who offer these sort of refunds have been involved. For all the goodwill intended the offer is insulting. When the suggestion came that those Gillingham fans need paying back for a poor performance they should have risen to their full height and told the club thanks, but no thanks, because supporting is about the thick and thin.
Not doing so passes the power to clubs. It turns supporting into ‘consuming the football product’ and ties the football product to winning matches and playing well. Supporters watch their team in brilliant games during great seasons and in rank awful ones in terrible years. It is not for the club to cheapen this devotion by trying to boil it down to a pounds and pence calculation on the basis of one game falling below a certain threshold of acceptability and another not doing so.
At the club I first went to in 1981, Bradford City, there is an offer of the cheapest season tickets in football – the massive stadium, relic of two years in the Premier League, and the laws of supply and demand allow for it – but this season with the club struggling at the foot of League 2 (again) there was a decision to delay launching the offer for 2012/2013 season tickets until it was felt that the performances had improved. With the club now 20th in League Two it seems that that improvement has happened as the club prepare to launch.
Bradford City – over the last decade – have fallen from the top division of English football to the bottom and on reaching the bottom floundered making a number of random stabs at promotion but failing even to reach the play-offs. Five years of the bottom division constantly getting crowds that run into five figures.
To these people the club are prepared to say that they will not sell season tickets until performances improve. I think it might be safe to assume that results-sensitive supporters have left Valley Parade some time ago and yet the club feel that the supporter who has turned up week in week out for a decade of defeats should be thanked for that commitment with the suggestion that they will not buy until results pick up. These people have shown a level of loyalty that deserves more than that.
As does everyone who is offered one of these refunds. They are putting something into their clubs more than the cost of a tank of petrol or a ticket and they have been putting it in for longer than those who patronisingly say that it is their responsibility to put hand in pocket to refund. As a supporter I decide if I want to go to a game, if I want to follow a club, I do not do that on the idea that every game will be a great victory and none will be horrible defeats, and I’ve been doing it for longer than Johnny Boardroom has been sitting in the expensive seats.
Which is not to criticise the clubs who want to time season ticket sales, the clubs that offer refunds, or the fans that take them but just to point out that the culture of the game is such that the currency of supporting itself – the capacity to back your club through thick and thin – is being cheapened by being given a monetary value as if supporting itself can be bought and sold like so much else in football.